To Trust in the Doubtful Hour: Between Love and Accusation

[Originally posted on Facebook, 19 January 2017.]

God is good. The enemies of love tear down. And life is ambiguous. Light and darkness grapple, and in the twilight it’s hard to make out who the good guys are.

The Pharisees were quite sure they were the good guys, and that Jesus was the bad guy. In our time, the enthusiasts of rules for rules’ sake are quite sure of their moral superiority, and that the merciful are harming humanity.

The gospel reading for Mass yesterday clearly demonstrates the core anti-pharisaical commitment of Christianity, and as Pope Francis’s detractors amongst the pundit class become more incautious, we must hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches. 

Jesus enters a synagogue, and sees a man with a withered hand. The Pharisees “were watching Him to see if He would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse Him” (Mark 3:2). Feel the intensity of this “watching,” this sort of hunger to catch someone out, the visceral pleasure of playing gotcha. It is not as if we haven’t all indulged in this strange voyeurism. The one who surveils has preemptively changed the subject to the other guy: it’s HIS sins that matter. Mine? Negligible, by hypothesis. 

There is a kind of enjoyment here. It is a perversion, to be sure, almost in the sexological sense, but it is a pleasure nevertheless. To miss that fact is to miss an essential motive of our pharisaism. We may not party like the world, but we have the jouissance of surveillance!

Of course, the world might be forgiven for thinking that their party is more fun and more humane, even if we acknowledge how wretched and inhuman paganism can itself be.

For Jesus, there is no ambiguity. He is the Son of the Father, Who is Light, Who is simply good. Of course He knows what is at stake: “Is it permitted to do good or to do evil on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill?” (3:4). 

Before a suffering human being, there is no neutral stance: we either do good or do evil to that person. There is indeed a clearcut moral imperative here, but not in the sense of a legalist interpretation of one of the Ten Commandments. Exactly not that. Rather, it is the moral necessity of doing right by a suffering human being. To fail to do that is to do evil, to kill. There is no grey area here.

We make the preferential option for the poor and suffering, or we are siding with the kingdom of darkness.

Jesus is not soft on Pharisees: “And having looked at them with anger, deeply grieved at their hardness of heart…” (3:5). 

And Pharisaism reveals itself to be literally anti-Christ (3:6).

Until we Christians reject pharisaism with the same uncompromising vigor with which Jesus rejects it, we have nothing to commend to the world. We have been given all the graces of the Christian life for only one reason: to communicate the joy of being forgiven by an infinitely loving God. 

Life IS ambiguous. That’s why we all need the absolute clarity of knowing by faith that God is good and only good. Or, in the words of Saint James: “Every good and every perfect gift is from above and comes down from the Father of lights, with Whom there is no change or shadow of variation” (James 1:17). 

We need this faith especially when we pass through the dark night. Like the man with the withered hand, we await the healing of God, but it never seems to come. And the accuser’s voice keeps tempting us to doubt the goodness of God: He doesn’t love me; I am suffering, so that means I’ve done wrong (the comfortable have told me so!) 

In exegeting that verse from James, Kierkegaard describes a soul receiving the reality of the good God through a dark night. As dawn approaches for a person, something changes: “When the busy thoughts had worked themselves weary, when your fruitless wishes had exhausted your soul, perhaps then your being grew more calm, perhaps then your mind, secretly and imperceptibly, developed in itself the meekness that is receptive to the word that was implanted within you and that was capable of blessing your soul, the word that all good and all perfect gifts come from above. Then no doubt you confessed in all humility that God…did not treat you unfairly when He denied you a wish but in compensation created this faith in your heart, when instead of a wish, which, even if it would bring everything, at most was able to give you the whole world, He gave you a faith by which you won God and overcame the whole world.”

Faith means trusting in the goodness of God. For that to happen requires our surrendering all our notions of how the world and our lives should be ordered: “Then you acknowledged with humble joy that God was still the almighty Creator of heaven and earth, Who not only created the world from nothing but did something even more marvelous—from your impatient and inconstant heart He created the imperishable substance of a quiet spirit.”

A spirit quiet before God: the great pearl of suffering. 

Such a spirit does not accuse others. It seeks to carry out the one mission: reconciliation. It seeks to be good, as the heavenly Father is good. It seeks to do good, as the heavenly Father does every good. 

A pharisaical Christianity proposes a pharisaical god, who plays gotcha with humanity. In reality, all God wants to do is deliver us from evil: to justify us in His Son Jesus. If we trust in the Father’s love, we will love those in darkness. We would no more accuse them than have ourselves accused (the golden rule). A strong faith also relieves us of the temptation to accuse God. 

Our quiet spirit becomes the docile instrument of the Holy Spirit Who advocates for each human. 

A quiet spirit is a spirit that has been transferred, by the dark night, from the dimension of merely self-serving desire into the dimension of the Father’s graciousness. 

A quiet spirit is a spirit that loves: that hopes all things, believes all things, bears all things. As dawn approaches, our eyes blink upon a world filled with the Father’s goodness, but a world that also needs us to communicate the Father’s unambiguous love.